The Narrative Structure of Global Weakening

NEW HAVEN – Recent indications of a weakening global economy have led many people to wonder how pervasive poor economic performance will be in the coming years. Are we facing a long global slump, or possibly even a depression?

A fundamental problem in forecasting nowadays is that the ultimate causes of the slowdown are really psychological and sociological, and relate to fluctuating confidence and changing “animal spirits,” about which George Akerlof and I have written. We argue that such shifts reflect changing stories, epidemics of new narratives, and associated views of the world, which are difficult to quantify.

In fact, most professional economists do not seem overly glum about the global economy’s prospects. For example, on September 6, the OECD issued an interim assessment on the near-term global outlook, written by Pier Carlo Padoan, that blandly reports “significant risks” on the horizon – the language of uncertainty itself.

The problem is that the statistical models that comprise economists’ toolkit are best applied in normal times, so economists naturally like to describe the situation as normal. If the current slowdown is typical of other slowdowns in recent decades, then we can predict the same kind of recovery.